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CancerGuide: Statistics

Introductory Articles
Why Statistics Matter!
Survival Curves
More Advanced Articles
Why Statistics Matter

I often hear that "the statistics don't matter" - a kind of rebellion against what is perceived as a mathematically and coldly ordained fate. Statistics are cold. They have no humanity. They seem to deny your individuality and seem to deny the infinite possibilities which life has to offer you, replacing them and you by a number. Thus statistics, especially unfavorable ones, are often rejected in anger. But I think this is a mistake and potentially a serious one.

Statistics are About Our Previous Experience

The statistics which apply to you are really just a distillation of the previous experience of many people in more or less the same situation as yourself. Experience is the best way to learn what works and what doesn't, so these statistics can guide your decision making. Previous experience in the form of statistics can also provide you either important motivation, or important reassurance.

Statistics are Useful as Guides and Motivators

The statistics on the results of various treatments can guide you to the most promising options and can thus help you improve your odds. You can use statistical evidence to choose the treatments that seem to give the best results and avoid those which don't work. While other characteristics such as side effects, cost and availability are also part of the big picture, you ignore the help of distilled previous experience at your peril!

If the statistics imply that your prognosis is good, you can be reassured and perhaps will not need to make an extraordinary effort to learn every technical aspect of your cancer, but instead can be satisfied that the standard treatments will very likely do the trick. You may want to investigate to make sure that the treatment proposed for you is not more radical than it needs to be.

The statistics may not imply a good prognosis. In my case, the statistics I found were terrifying and grim. In one study I read, the one year survival rate was ten percent, and there were no survivors at all past four and one half years (Check Postcards From Beyond the Zero to see the actual curve). Words cannot express how painful it was to confront such unremittingly bleak statistics. But at the same time they were a powerful, powerful stimulus to do something different than what the patients in that study did. I knew that these statistics were not the truth for all patients in all time future and past, but rather represented the experience with a group of patients in my situation who were treated with the standard treatments of the time which didn't work. So I was very strongly motivated to search for something better, and then to try a promising new treatment so I could be "on" a different survival curve. I knew I was lucky to find something that really was helping a few patients and realized that in my position, I could not afford the luxury of waiting for certainty about just exactly how good the treatment was. Instead a strong hint of real promise was enough to mean I had to do it. It was in the statistics. The statistics saved my life because I could hear their message.

Statistics Do not Pre-Ordain Your Fate or Erase Your Individuality!

Statistics represent a range of possibilities experienced by a particular group of patients (as Stephen Jay Gould so well explains in The Median Isn't the Message). Statistics cannot represent all possibilities that all patients will experience forever no matter what they do. They are not fate written in stone.

Understanding a little about the limitations of statistics is also important. In my case, the terrible curve I saw was based on a relatively small sample - I didn't believe there was an absolute limit of four and a half years even with "standard" treatment, but instead I knew that there might be a very small number of people who would survive beyond the experience of this small sample. Small samples do not adequately represent the entire range of possibility. I knew that. I thought I had a chance even if it was a very small one. Statistics outline probabilities - they cannot limit possibilities.



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This CancerGuide Page By Steve Dunn. © Steve Dunn
Page Created: 2000, Last Updated: May 15, 2002